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Capunatina, The Little Caponata

Some versions of caponata can be amazingly baroque. Here’s one as quick and simple as it is tasty:

  • 1 pound (500 g) eggplant
  • 3/4 pound (350 g) ripe tomatoes
  • 4 large peppers (red and yellow make for pleasant color contrasts)
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) caciocavallo cheese, diced (caciocavallo is a moderately sharp firm cheese; in its absence use mild Provolone)
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Basil

Begin by dicing the eggplant and leaving the pieces in a colander for an hour, liberally sprinkled with salt, to draw out their bitter juices. Seed the peppers and cut them into strips, chop and seed the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 375 F (180C)

Rinse the salt off the diced eggplant, pat the pieces dry, and combine them with the other ingredients in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle liberally with olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste, and bake for a half hour. Stir everything around, mixing in the half cup of dry white wine, and bake another half hour.

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Caponata alla Sicilana

Lo Scoglio Ubriaco's Caponata

Lo Scoglio Ubriaco’s Caponata

The savory dish more people probably associate with Sicily than any other is caponata, a (generally) eggplanty delight that has now spread throughout the Peninsula, much in the manner of cotoletta alla milanese. As is the case with the cotoletta, which is one thing in Milano and too often something else elsewhere, much of the caponata one encounters outside of Sicily is a shadow of what it should be — a zesty summer dish that’s perfect eaten cold, and ideal for perking up an indolent appetite on a hot day.

For that matter, it’s much too good to abandon after the summer and is now made year round, in an infinite variety of forms. Some are purely vegetarian, whereas what’s made in Palermo can also contain fish. Though there is never any one recipe for a traditional dish, the recipe that follows serves as a base for a great many variations, some of which follow below. The recipes are based on those in Pino Correnti’s Il Libro d’Oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia.

  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) eggplants
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) green olives packed in brine, pitted
  • 2 ounces (60 g) salted capers, well rinsed
  • 1 1/4 pounds (500 g) celery ribs
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (optional)
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) onions
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Basil
  • 3/8 cup pine nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Begin by stripping the filaments from the celery sticks, then blanch them in lightly salted water for five minutes. Drain them, cut them into bite-size pieces, sauté them in a little oil, and set them aside.

Wash the eggplant, dice them, put the pieces in a strainer, sprinkle them liberally with salt, and let them sit for several hours to draw out the bitter juices. While they’re sitting, blanch, peel, seed and chop the tomatoes.

Once the eggplant has sat, rinse away the salt and pat the pieces dry. Finely slice the onion and sauté them in olive oil; once they have turned translucent add the capers, pine nuts, olives, and tomatoes. Continue cooking, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the tomatoes are done, about 15 minutes, and then remove the pot from the fire.

While the tomatoes are cooking heat a second pot of oil and fry the diced eggplant, in several batches to keep the oil from getting chilled. When the last batch is done, return the tomato pot to the fire and stir in the eggplant, together with the previously sautéed celery. Cook for several minutes over a low flame, stirring gently, then stir in the vinegar and the sugar; when the vinegar has almost completely evaporated remove the pot from the fire and let it cool.

Serve the caponata cold with a garnish of fresh basil; it will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

And now some variations:

Capunata Palermitana chi Purpiceddi, Palermo-Style Caponata with Fish

To serve 8 you’ll need:

  • The ingredients listed above, plus:
  • 1 pound (450 g) baby octopus (or squid), cleaned
  • 4/5 cup (100 g) flour
  • 2 artichokes, sliced into eighths and blanched

The method follows that given above, with the following variations: Flour the celery sticks, artichokes, olives and capers, and fry them. If the octopus are very small fry them whole, otherwise chop them before frying them. Drain all the fried ingredients well on absorbent paper, add them to the tomato mixture, and finish cooking as above.

Capunata Barunissa di Carni, The Baroness of Carni’s Caponata

As Mr. Correnti observes, the Noble Lady must have been given to flights of fancy, sensuous, and wealthy.

To serve 8 you’ll need:

  • All the ingredients of the preceding two versions except the octopus.
  • 3/4 pound (350 g) swordfish filets, thinly sliced, floured and fried.
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) diced lobster tail, barely blanched
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) asparagus tips (wild asparagus will be best), steamed
  • 1/4 pound (110 g) shrimp, boiled until just done and shelled
  • A scant ounces (50 g) bottarga (tuna roe, available from a delicatessen), grated or crumbled
  • Minced parsley

Prepare the caponata following the procedure outlined above; gently combining the swordfish filets, asparagus tips and diced lobster tail with everything else and lay the caponata out in an elegant serving dish. Garnish it with the shrimp, bottarga and minced parsley, and serve, with a dry white wine.

Cassata alla Siciliana

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata is one of the most classic Sicilian cakes, and also one of the oldest: Though you will find people suggesting it dates to Sicily’s Arab period because of the candied fruit that serves as both decoration and ingredient in the ricotta cream, the word Cassata derives from the Latin Caseus, which means cheese. In other words, Cassata is a cheesecake, one of the world’s first.

Given its age it comes as no surprise that there are a great many variations throughout Sicily. This recipe is trapanese, from Trapani, while the pictures, which will I hope inspire you, are of a cassata some friends brought to our house, a cassata prepared by the Ristorante Albergo Moderno in Erice, and one prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu.

You’ll need:

  • 1 1/3 cups (280 g) sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (150 g) flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Half a lemon
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • Marsala
  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) fresh sheep’s milk ricotta (you can use cow if you must)
  • A pinch of vanillin, or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces (50 g) finely diced zuccata, which is candied melon peel
  • 2 ounces (50 g) bitter chocolate, in shavings
  • 9 ounces (250 g) blanched peeled almonds
  • 3 drops of bitter almond extract
  • 5 cups (500 g) powdered sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Potato starch (you may find this in the Jewish section of your market)
  • Green (or the color you prefer) food coloring
  • Butter and flour for the cake pan
  • Strips of zuccata and assorted candied fruit
A Cassata Alla Siciliana

A Cassata Alla Siciliana

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Whip 6 egg white to firm peaks with a pinch of salt.

In another bowl, beat 6 yolks with 3/4 cup of the granular sugar, until the mixture is frothy and pale yellow.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and slowly add it to the beaten yolks, together with a couple of tablespoons of egg white and the grated zest of the lemon; finally, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the mixture. Turn the batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch (22 cm) square pan and bake it for a half hour; remove the cake from the oven and let it cool before removing it from the pan.

In the meantime, grind the almonds in a food processor, using short bursts to keep them from liquefying and giving off their oil.

Add 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar and the bitter almond essence diluted in 1/4 cup water, and blend until the mixture is homogenous.

Dust your work surface with potato starch before turning the paste out onto it (you can also turn it out onto a sheet of wax paper), and incorporate a few drops of green (or whatever color you prefer) dye, diluted in a few drops of water. Work the paste until the color is uniform and then wrap the paste in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator.

Put the ricotta through a fairly fine wire mesh strainer and combine it with 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the vanillin, the chocolate, and the diced zuccata.

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Next, roll the almond paste out 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick; the sheet should be large enough to line a 10-inch (25 cm) round pudding mold.

Before doings so, line the mold with plastic wrap, and then lay the sheet of almond paste into it.

Next, slice the cake into half-inch (about a cm) horizontal sheets and use them to line the bottom and sides of the mold, making a box of sorts.

Make a syrup by diluting some Marsala with a little water and a little sugar, and sprinkle it over the cake. Fill the box with the creamy ricotta mixture and cover it with more of the cake, sprinkling again with the Marsala syrup.

Lay a dish over the cassata, press down gently, and chill the cassata for several hours in the refrigerator.

It is now time to decorate the cassata: turn it over onto a serving dish and remove the mold and the plastic wrap. Beat the remaining two whites and sift the remaining powdered sugar into them, beating all the while to obtain a thick, homogenous cream. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the glaze and spread it over the cassata. Let the glaze set for a few minutes, decorate the cassata with the remaining candied fruit, and chill it for several more hours before serving it.